In all, the seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) in March is expected to reach 15.3 million units, according to a joint survey from J.D. Power and Associates and LMC Automotive. That would be flat against February's numbers, despite the average retail price of a new car going up 3 percent, to $28,504.
The retail sales SAAR of 12.1 million units should remain unchanged as well.
What's at the root of continued healthy sales? J.D. Power and Associates senior vice president of global automotive operations John Humphrey says that the steady upward pressure of price has pushed buyers into longer-term loans, but says shoppers also are leasing more, as well as capitalizing on low interest rates.
Bankrate.com's average for new 48-month auto loans currently sits at 2.44 percent, near historic lows.
"While longer loan terms have traditionally been a cause for concern to the industry due to the risk of purchase cycle extension, it is not necessarily as daunting as it may seem." said Humphrey. "The longer loans are being offset by more leasing and the low interest environment, which means that consumers are able to put more of their monthly payment towards their loan principal rather than interest fees."
"We expect the economic environment to improve throughout 2013, as the likelihood of a dark cloud slowing the recovery pace diminishes," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive. "Consumers do not appear phased by headwinds from Washington."
The automakers themselves are upbeat about prospects for the remainder of the year. GM predicts a SAAR of between 15 and 15.5 million units for the year; Chrysler estimates the March SAAR at 15.6 million vehicles, including retail and fleet.
General Motors: GM [NYSE:GM] says it sold 245,950 vehicles in the U.S. in March, up 6.4 percent from the year before. Cadillac posted a 49.5-percent gain to 15,751 units; Buick sales were up 37.4 percent to 18,007 units; GMC sales rose 11.6 percent to 38,333 vehicles; and Chevy was up 0.5 percent to 173,859 units. Big crossovers were in vogue: Chevy's Traverse was up 54 percent, while the similar GMC Acadia was up 77 percent, and the Buick Enclave, 55 percent. But the Buick Regal was off 38.5%; the Chevy Camaro, down 12.8%; the poorly received Chevy Malibu was off 22.4% and the aging-out Cadillac CTS saw its sales fall 37.8%. In addition, GM could have used some extended range on its electric car numbers: Volt sales were down 35.4%.
Ford: Ford [NYSE: F] says it posted a sales increase of 6 percent, its best month since May 2007. The Ford brand, up 6.9 percent, accounted for 229,335 units out of the 236,160-vehicle total, while Lincoln was off 22.5 percent for the remaining 6,825 units. Cars were flat, trucks were up 6 percent, SUVs rose 14 percent between both Ford brands--but Mustang sales were off 15 percent, and Focus sales were down 11.9 percent, while F-Series pickups pushed 16.3 higher and the 2013 Ford Fusion sedan had sales up 6 percent.